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Not Monkeying Around on Helping Kids Eat Right



If you look at the job history of people involved in the childhood obesity movement, you usually can pick out a few common themes. Many have a background in nutrition or physical fitness; others are policy wonks with experience in health-centered campaigns.

But "spent three months on an island studying primate mating behavior" isn’t something normally included on the resume of an obesity advocate. Until now.

Meet Michelle Stern. The mother-of-two runs "What’s Cooking With Kids," a popular company in the San Francisco region offering healthy cooking classes for children and their families. Part of what she does is work with local schools to provide an after-school program designed to educate students about good eating habits by teaching them how to use fresh, local and other healthy ingredients to make meals.

"I actually sort of feel like the health of our nation depends on it, frankly," Stern says of the program. "I feel like families aren’t spending that much time in the kitchen anymore… probably because they just don’t know what to do. A lot of families just don’t know how to cook."

The six-to-12 week program takes place on school campuses, and aligns with the curriculum components of the California State Framework Standards for Science, Math, Language Arts, Social Studies and Health. Stern also works with local school and community leaders to offer healthy summer camps for students in grades 3-6 and 7-9, and offers consulting for teachers and educators who want to incorporate nutrition curriculum into their classrooms.

Stern speaks with authority, as she worked as a high school biology teacher for many years before leaving to raise a family. And before she became an educator, Stern aimed to become a scientist studying animal behavior.

She graduated college with a degree in biology, and she spent three months studying monkey mating on a small island off the coast of Puerto Rico. But she quickly realized that camping out and watching animals, er, get to know each other, just wasn’t for her. "I decided I really needed to work with people more," she explains, laughing.

Stern earned a teaching credential and became a high school biology and environmental science instructor. She left teaching once she had kids, but decided that she wanted to head back to work.

So she became a Pampered Chef consultant, hosting seminars for people interested in cooking. Friends urged the former teacher to host similar cooking-themed classes for children, and the new mom decided to go for it. She soon began working with school and community leaders to offer classes to scout troops, school classrooms and at local recreation centers. Eventually, she launched the after-school program.

Her students usually are enthusiastic, she says. Stern recently taught her 10-year-old daughter’s fourth grade class how to make soup and a vegetarian chili, for example. "They devoured it," she says.

"I think a lot of parents would think, ‘Oh my God, kids would never like squash chili.’ But they loved it," she says. "They just were really proud overall that they could transform ingredients into a meal that provides nourishment."

Stern hopes to help spread the message to families around the country with her new cookbook, set for release in April 2011. The book is filled with color-coded recipes that let parents know what kids should be able to do when making a dish. Most of the meals focus on using locally-grown foods and sustainable ingredients.

"Cooking is a life-long skill," Stern says. "This is something kids can use every day as they grow up."